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One of the directors of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary goes solo for Green Book, his first “serious” feature effort.

Director Peter Farrelly, sans little brother Bobby, gives us a film that’s essentially a remake of Driving Miss Daisy with the roles reversed, starring Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the Academy Award-winning actor from Moonlight (Mahershala Ali). It’s a feel-good movie about race relations that goes light on the grit and heavy on the sentiment.

The film is based on a true story. Mortensen plays Tony Lip, an Italian bouncer at the Copacabana who finds himself temporarily without a job as the club is getting renovated. His next gig installs him as a driver and bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), an African-American classical pianist who is touring with a jazz trio in the early 1960s deep South.

This is a road movie, with Tony driving and Don sitting in the back. As they venture south, they talk about fried chicken, Chubby Checker and letter-writing. There is nothing in their dialogue that is remotely original or surprising, but Farrelly wisely has these two guys in the car. Without them, this film would be a total slog. The duo is, at times, fun to watch, even when the movie around them isn’t.

The titular Green Book is a guide for African Americans, listing safe havens where Don can eat and find shelter. The deeper into the South the tour goes, the lousier the accommodations for Don become. A rich man up north, Don is reduced to skeevy rooms and nothing but a bottle of Cutty Sark to get him through the night.

Segregation rears its ugly head as Don tries to do things such as buy a suit or eat in a restaurant where he’s been hired to play. This is where Tony becomes the hero, stepping in for his boss and occasionally cracking a few skulls. Yes, Tony is Dr. Don’s white knight, a man who will learn to love just a little bit more, regardless of the color of somebody’s skin; he may even use a few fewer racial slurs before the credits roll.

The film doesn’t feel like it was made today. It has the sensibility of a movie made somewhere around the late ’80s to mid ’90s. It’s a little too safe and predictable for its own good. A movie about racism should be uglier; this one tries a little too hard to not upset anybody. I have no problem with an optimistic viewpoint and a happy ending, but something about this movie, even though the characters are based on real people, rings a little false and shallow.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable to some degree. Mortensen, best known for dramatic and action roles, gets a chance to show off some comedic timing. He also put on more than 40 pounds for the role. That, coupled with a typical Italian accent, makes him OK in the type of role that used to go to the likes of Danny Aiello or the late Dennis Farina.

Mahershala is good as Shirley—so good you’ll wish the script matched the majesty of his work. Seamless special effects make it look like he can play a mean piano. (Kris Bowers, the film’s score composer, is also Ali’s piano double.)

Green Book is the sort of movie that has “Oscar” written all over it, but I won’t be trumpeting it when it’s time for the golden boys to be passed out. The movie is average at best, and I expect a little more heft from a movie with this subject matter.

Green Book is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

We get a nice reminder of what a great actor Viggo Mortesnsen is in The Two Faces of January, a fine piece of suspenseful filmmaking from writer-director Hossein Amini, the man who penned Drive.

While vacationing in Athens, Greece, in the early 1960s, Chester, an investment broker, and his wife, Colette (Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), come across Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American tour guide who tricks young college girls out of their cash. Chester and Colette seem innocent enough—until a private detective shows up at their hotel, looking for payback on some of Chester’s bad investments. It turns out Chester, who presents himself as a wealthy stock market mogul, has a checkered past.

The couple needs to flee Athens, and solicits the help of Rydal and his connections. Rydal assists—assured that he will make a lot of money. His intentions shift when more is revealed about Chester’s past and personality. Colette slowly but surely becomes Rydal’s romantic target.

This is one of those stories in which a happy ending doen’t seem at all possible. The three main actors do an excellent job of making you care for their characters, even as they do increasingly stupid things. Nobody in the movie is evil, exactly, yet their actions lead to unforgivable crimes and a body count.

While The Two Faces of January works as a good suspense thriller, the film also works as a brutal case study of a man gripped by jealousy. The more trouble in which Chester finds himself, the more he becomes obsessed with the notion of his younger wife cheating with the handsome Rydal. Chester’s predicament leads to long drinking binges, ill-timed naps and far too many opportunities for his wife to go astray.

Mortensen is fantastic at portraying meek men with molten underbellies. His Chester isn’t too far removed from Tom Stall, his career-best character in A History of Violence. Chester has a gentle heart, it seems, but a violent war past and his willingness to swindle shady characters makes him into a potentially monstrous man who will not only go down swinging, but take loved ones with him.

As this film’s ingénue, Dunst gets perhaps her most mature role yet. It’s been 20 years since what may be her second-most-mature role role, that of the permanently youthful but scarily mature blood sucker in Interview With the Vampire. Her work here stands alongside her performance in Melancholia as some of her best work.

Isaac is one of the more reliable young actors out there, judging by his work here, in Inside Llewyn Davis and in Drive.

This is the feature directorial debut for Amini. He has a great eye for the 1960s period and exotic locations, something helped greatly by the fact that he was able to shoot on location in Greece and Turkey. Much about the film recalls Hitchcock at this best. The casting of Dunst reminds of Grace Kelly in Rear Window.

In a strange way, The Two Faces of January becomes a story about redemption, as it provides Mortensen with a final scene that gives compelling closure. It’s his best film since 2009’s The Road. The film is about mistakes, and how those mistakes can rip through lives like shark teeth through a seal’s torso. It’s a brutal story, elegantly told.

The Two Faces of January is available via video on demand and online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com. It also opens Friday, Oct. 10 at Cinemas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

Published in Reviews

A cavalcade of stars shows up for this pretty, if meandering, adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novel, On the Road.

Sam Riley (who was so damn good in Control) provides a decent center as Sal (essentially Kerouac). He finds himself on a long road trip that involves hand jobs from Kristen Stewart and him watching sex acts performed on Steve Buscemi. (Yikes!)

In short, this movie is a bit crazy, and its unpredictability keeps it interesting. Garrett Hedlund is solid as a character loosely based on Neal Cassady, and Stewart sheds her Bella image for a good, carefree performance. Others in the cast include Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst.

The movie is OK, but I was looking for a little more meat on the bone, considering the subject matter.

On the Road is now available On Demand.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing